Capitalism’s Bases Loaded and No One’s at Bat

Last Thursday in Houston, Texas, I sat among 45,000 excited baseball fans watching a crucial game between the Houston Astros and the San Francisco Giants. Both teams were fighting to play in the post-season, and Barry Bonds was racing to beat the Major League Baseball homerun record.

Despite the game?s important implications, I couldn?t focus entirely on Bonds, the game or the record. My mind kept wandering back to the desperate cry of a man standing alone in a run-down parking lot, five blocks from my comfortable seat in right field. In the middle of a baseball game, I was having an epiphany about capitalism?s cruel side and about a common college kid?s role in improving its imperfections.

I was in Houston on a business trip. That afternoon I had cut out early from a meeting and taken a taxi to the Astros? Enron Field. I then began searching for ticket scalpers, my source of entry into the sold-out game.

After several meaningless squabbles, I approached a man standing with a single ticket in hand.

“What do you got?” I asked.

“Lower bowl, first base line,” he replied. “Great seat, right at the bottom.” I inspected the ticket. It looked real, but differently colored from those I had seen earlier. “You can have it for $75,” he said confidently.

Determined not to pay much, I offered him $20.

“No, you?re ripping me off,” he said dramatically, telling me he would have better offers. I turned and started to walk away, and he said, “All right, $25.” I had suspicions about the ticket?s validity, so I kept walking.

Then, in a desperate and almost pathetic tone, he yelled to me, “Come on, man, $20. Just $20. Come on!” I walked away.

Minutes later I approached another man selling tickets. He was standing between two professionally made signs promoting his sales, holding a stack of at least 30 tickets. When I offered him $20 for an outfield seat, he shrugged unimpressed and said, “Fine.”

I then asked him about the colored ticket I had seen minutes earlier. “The colored tickets are for lower bowl seats near the dugouts,” he replied. “They?ll cost you at least $40. Their face value is $25.”

As I settled into my seat, I kept thinking about the man who offered me the $20 lower bowl ticket. His last plea for $20 sounded so desperate and distressed. He needed the cash. He had even offered me the ticket for less than face value.

In contrast, the guy who sold me my ticket considered $20 an afterthought.

I usually consider $20 an afterthought?I had spent that much just getting to the ballpark. And I was eating a $7 hotdog.

As the innings passed, I kept wondering how I should consider my relative wealth. I grew up in a large, middle-class family in which patching clothing and clipping coupons were everyday realities. Still, I suddenly felt rich, and I wondered how I should feel about it.

Is guilt the proper response? Probably not, I reasoned, since people don?t control the situation into which they are born.

Should a person feel bad for having better opportunities than another? Not necessarily, since it only makes sense for people to take advantage of opportunities afforded them. In addition, opportunities and education also reflect work and initiative.

Can welfare programs solve the problem? In some ways they do. But despite the U.S. welfare system?s recent improvements, welfare payments alone only scratch the surface of a deep-rooted problem.

Should capitalism hold the blame? Partially, yes. Since the system works as a series of self-interested transactions, capitalism is inherently unfeeling, and does exploit some people. Still, capitalism allows for upward movement, gives rewards based on merit, fosters efficiency and generally lowers costs. And socialistic societies have yet to create a system that functions well over the long term.

I was getting nowhere.

I finally found a partial answer to my perplexing question from a man I had met at the game. I asked Barry, a loudmouthed divorce lawyer from Houston, what he thought.

“Oh, I don?t know. It?s a mess any time you divide assets,” he said.

“One thing I?ve learned in my work is that you can never divide assets equally,” he continued. “Even when they say they?re dividing things fifty fifty, somebody always loses, and somebody always wins. The question is who?s going to give in. Somebody always has to give in.”

That night after the game, I climbed into a taxi driven by a cheerful older man. “Where are you going?” he asked.

I didn?t want to answer.

“The Marriott.”

I asked him how long he had been driving a taxi. “Too long,” he said. “Ten or 11 years. It?s decent work, and it keeps me off the streets.”

He eventually pulled into the Marriott?s shiny covered parking area. The bellhops moved quickly to open my door.

The toll for the ride was $13, and I gave the driver $15. His warm reaction surprised me, as he thanked me several times emphatically?for two extra dollars.

In that minute transaction, I found that Barry?s theory was partially incorrect. He had said that when dividing assets, “somebody always has to give in,” and that “somebody always loses, and somebody always wins.”

I guess by giving up a few extra dollars, I had “given in.” But I certainly didn?t feel like I had lost.

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